As usual, it was an exciting day when a new issue of FANTASTIC FOUR turned up on my 7-11’s spinner rack. We were in the midst of an extended “FF breaks up” storyline, one that had been running virtually since I began buying new issues, and I was very much invested in what was going to happen next. While I knew that the FF breaking up was by this point something of a trope (and an entire issue had been recently devoted to detailing all of the prior times in which it happened), this instance seemed more momentous to me. I don’t know if I was quite savvy enough to have realized that it would likely be issue #200, then not far off in the distance, when the team would be reunited again–I might have, but I can’t recall for certain. But centennial issues were already a big deal for comic book readers at this point.
With ongoing writer/editor Len Wein having left Marvel to go to the competition and write BATMAN, FANTASTIC FOUR continued to be a series in disarray, as it had been for the past couple of months. Here, utility player Bill Mantlo steps in to dialogue this story, while a new penciler comes on board to helm the title. Keith Pollard is one of those more overlooked artists of the era, but I liked his work a lot, whether finding it on FANTASTIC FOUR, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (where he brought a bit of Ditko funkiness back to the character) or THOR. He had a very meat-and-potatoes approach to doing Marvel comics, one completely steeped in the lessons of Kirby, Romita and Buscema. It certainly helped that Joe Sinnott remained as inker/finisher in residence, giving the series a visual continuity.
With the Fantastic Four separated, the Thing has taken on a position with NASA, hearkening back to his skills as a test pilot. But as the issue opens, the base Grimm is stationed at comes under attack by Darkoth. I knew who Darkoth was from an issue of FF that I had gotten from my buddy Don Sims–he’d been a minion of Doctor Doom’s who had turned on Doom in the end. Here, he’s determined to prevent the launch of the new Solar Shuttle, but he didn’t realize that the Thing was on premises, and he stages a withdrawal. Later, Ben gets a call from Desmond Pitt, an old friend of his, warning him that the shuttle he is to pilot has been sabotaged. Only problem is, Desmond Pitt is supposed to be dead. Even young me could do the algebra at this point.
We find out a bit more about Desmond Pitt as the Thing talks to people about what he’s experienced. Pitt is considered a traitor, having sold military secrets to Doctor Doom in order to raise funds to care for a sick wife. And years ago, he once pulled Ben Grimm from out of the wreckage of a downed aircraft, saving Ben’s life. But Pitt discovered that Doom had sabotaged the Solar Shuttle, intending for it to be used as a power source for his own schemes–and when Pitt tried to turn on him, Doom turned him into Darkoth as punishment. In the interim, the shuttle had been built from Doom’s altered plans, and now Ben is going to pilot it. This all suits the ambitions of Diablo, the FF’s old enemy who is also a foe of Doom’s. He’s used his alchemy to take control of Darkoth and he intends to use Doom’s own device against him.
We also spend part of the issue checking in on Ben’s former partners. Sue is in Hollywood working as an actress, where she’s joined by the Impossible Man–I seem to recall that this momentary diversion with Impy doesn’t actually go anywhere as the writers change. Reed is working at a government think-tank, where he’s monitored by a shadowy figure who is amused that Richards hasn’t thought to ask which government–and whose identity is relatively obvious. And the Torch is still out west with Wyatt Wingfoot and Rebecca Rainbow doing the race car circuit. Meanwhile, the Solar Shuttle launch goes off with the Thing at the controls–and as predicted, the ship is taken over remotely by Diablo and its solar collectors run wild, threatening to cook the Thing in his seat.
Diablo calls the shuttle to gloat and to reveal his plan to the Thing. He orders Darkoth to increase the intensity of the solar radiation, even though this will certainly kill the Thing. Darkoth seemingly does so–but instead Darkoth cuts off the power from Diablo’s base below, giving control of the shuttle back to the Thing. But Ben’s now in a crippled shuttle that’s falling towards the planet below. He uses his great skill as a pilot to attempt to glide the wounded craft into the atmosphere and thereafter to make an emergency crash-landing on the ground.
But that’s about all she wrote, as the Solar Shuttle pancakes on the desert floor and explodes in a massive ball of pyrotechnics. And that’s how the issue goes out–a pretty strong cliffhanger. To Be Continued!